Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dar Williams Dances Near Perfection With My Better Self

The Good: Excellent music, Phenomenal lyrics, Great voice, Holds up over MANY listens
The Bad: "Liar"
The Basics: Dar Williams's My Better Self is a brilliant collection of personal expression and political activism with a few impressive covers thrown in.

I do not use the words "perfect album" lightly. For that matter, I don't use the phrase "perfect film" or "perfect book" lightly either. I try to be as stingy with 10/10 (and 0/10) ratings as possible, so regular readers of my review understand when I do that the product truly is extraordinary (in either direction). Dar Williams' outing, My Better Self, falls a whisper shy of being a perfect album. It's so close, though.

Before I start gushing about this album I have listened to forty (LITERALLY) times in the last month, let me tell you why it's not a perfect album. "Liar." Track 11, sandwiched between the amazingly allegorical "Beautiful Enemy" and the simple elegance of "You Rise And Meet The Day," is not awful, but it is not the caliber of the other tracks and it distracts from the listening experience.

"Liar" is a socially-conscious song about a young person from the wrong side of the tracks who attends a school full of rich kids and basically passes as one of them. It's a good message, that those who are different should not be discriminated against just because they are not affluent. While Ms. Williams has a great talent for lyrics and has a strong grasp on the sentiment she is conveying here, the title (and thus the refrain) of "liar" just does not carry the message or impact that the discrimination implies. In simpler terms "liar" is the wrong word here. The refrain is catchy, yes, I have walked down the street humming "liar . . . li-ar" over and over again, but it is incongruent with the rest of the song. Or perhaps it is that it takes the language of the discriminators and thus does not allow the protagonist of the song her own identity in anything near objective terms that is troubling. Either way, this song does not work as . . .well, perfectly, as the rest of the album.

Dar Williams is an amazing poet and she basically has a voice that is filled with irony one moment, sadness the next, and poignancy in the next. Her messages range from political observation ("Empire") to the sadness of breakups ("So Close To My Heart") to the anger that comes from breaking up ("Beautiful Enemy") to the longing of love ("I'll Miss You Till I Meet You"). There is nothing she cannot cover. And, to turn a phrase, My Better Self includes two covers that are staggeringly brilliant interpretations of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."

My Better Self is an expression of a master of the craft of making music. Unlike 99.5% of what is played on the radio, Dar Williams has something to say and she has the ability to say what she wants clearly and in a way that is entertaining. Believe me, I don't listen to a c.d. forty times in a month if the work is not wonderful. Dar Williams has a daring spirit that often gets her classified as "folk," though My Better Self certainly goes well beyond what is traditionally thought of as folk by mainstream America. This album has a range and depth to it that is far beyond most artists.

In the folk tradition, My Better Self does include a fiery political charge with "Empire." Undeniably an assault on the Bush Administration, "Empire" charts the decay of a political regime with observations that individuals and institutions help create (and ultimately destroy) the corrupt machinations of a junta. Williams brilliantly opens with the most direct possible charge she can when making a timeless anthem, "Who's afraid of the sun? / Who would question the wisdom of the mighty?" Williams is fearless in her attack on the Bush Administration and laments the loss of America like no one else musically is doing these days.

And there is something subversive about following "Empire" with a cover of "Comfortably Numb," which Ani DiFranco joins Dar on. It is worth mentioning that My Better Self is easily the best use of guest performers on an album I have heard in Dar Williams repertoire, if not in recent memory for all albums. One ought to know one of my pet peeves is musical albums that rely on guest performers. When I buy a Dar Williams album, I want to hear Dar Williams. This trend is especially problematic in rap albums where many rappers will have other artists appear on tracks, in an attempt to cross-capitalize on the popularity of other artists. Usually, the extra performers add nothing, usually serving to distract from the individuals talent as a solo artist. On some of Dar's previous albums, I've been bothered by the guest vocals supporting her when she didn't seem to need it (spoiled me, hearing several of her songs live and on her own, before hearing them on the album). On My Better Self, the supporting vocals are excellent and not overbearing. Marshall Crenshaw on "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" adds to the performance. And Ani DiFranco's role on "Comfortably Numb" is so subtle I wondered how Dar Williams was able to get her to take such a supporting role.

More than a political album, My Better Self is a complex collections of songs about self, often infused with longing. Containing one of the best breakup songs ever, "Beautiful Enemy" is a brilliant track that explores the effects of a disunion in a cloak of international relations. It is clever and there is nothing like it on the radio.

The best track, though is the second. "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You" is sad and meaningful and full of hope and wonder. It is clever and it's too bad most radio stations will never play it.

An important note for those unfamiliar with the works of Dar Williams. My Better Self opens with an ironic assault on youth religion movements, entitled "Teen For God." If one does not enter the album understanding - or appreciating - irony, it can be a terrifying experience. No, Dar Williams is not a Christian rocker. The album bookends wonderfully with ironic "Teen For God" opening and closing with the very genuine, purity of "The Hudson."

Who will like this album? Anyone who likes quality music with brilliant, emotive lyrics. Who won't? I don't know them. Sorry. Any artist who can sing the word "hegemony" is worth your time, attention and money. And it forces me to revisit the question I asked on one of my earliest Dar Williams reviews: How is it Dar Williams is not huge?!

The best track is "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You" which is subtle and slow (a VERY close second is "Beautiful Enemy" which is raucous and energetic) and the weak point is "Liar," which robs My Better Self of perfection. But, for most, this is close enough.

For other works by Dar Williams, please check out my reviews of:
The Honesty Room
Mortal City
Cry Cry Cry (as a member of Cry Cry Cry)
The Green World
The Beauty Of The Rain
Out There Live
Live At Bearsville Theater
Promised Land
Many Great Companions


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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